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Negative effects of decision fatigue

Decision fatigue is a term coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. It’s loosely based on a Freudian concept that decision-making involves an expenditure of “self” or “ego” energy – of brain power – of which there is a limited cumulative supply.

Further, this limited energy meant self-control was also finite. For example, Freud contended those who exerted extreme self-control in one or more areas of their life, would not be able to practice self-control at all in another.

Of course, Freud parlayed this frequently into repression / sexual (over) expression. And while that’s not likely totally accurate regarding the theory or idea of decision fatigue, it does share similarities.

Decision fatigue is the general idea that we literally exhaust our brain – or limited mental power – with decisions and choices so that “downstream decision-making ability suffers.

This suffering often manifests itself in poor decisions or the inability to make any decisions at all.

Thus, as not making decisions is a negative result of decision fatigue, it’s obviously not a solution to the problem.

Confusing, right? Making too many decisions results in poor decisions later. Or decision fatigue results in not making decisions when you should, which is also not desirable. So how do you avoid decision fatigue if not making decisions, is not an option either?

Interestingly, studies have proven that analyzing choices is not as exhausting as actually making the choices. In other words, evaluation doesn’t deplete mental power like the actual choice does.

Why is this?

Well, for starters, analyzing is usually objective. It doesn’t require an actual trade-off or win-sum-loss. There are no real consequences to be considered (or dealt with) resulting from analysis itself. Therefore, it’s not as hard on the ego or ID.

Actual decision-making, on the other hand, is subjective. It directly affects us in some way—it has an impact on the ego or ID and thus, is more impactful (and stressful).

Interestingly, points out an article on decision fatigue in the NY Times, “The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.”

Therefore, as the brain gets tired, we get more reluctant to make the necessary trade-offs that come with decision-making. Every decision is in effect, a compromise. The compromises get bigger the closer we get to making the decision.

As willpower declines with mental fatigue – decision fatigue – we become less inclined to make those compromises.

Thus, make self-serving decisions or no decision at all as to keep our options open. Yet, those open options also often open us up to other potential problems because we don’t do what needs to be done, or allow negative consequences to occur due to that inaction.

On a side note, some of the researchers studying decision fatigue theorize that could be why the poor or underserved communities are often thought to be poor decision makers. Nearly every decision they make in their life involves some level of compromise, even those that seem “minor” to most everyone else.

Thus, they become extremely decision fatigued earlier – sooner – than other people. This leaves them with limited willpower or poor decision-making skills in other (MAJOR) areas.

What to do then about decision fatigue? Is there a way to fight it? To beat it?

Many recent experiments and research studies have discovered a key to preventing the lack of willpower and judgement that come with decision fatigue, may be nutrition. Glucose. Energy. It all relates back to energy.

One specific experiment gave a group of participants a sugary drink in the morning. Drinking the drink created a spike in glucose. The other group was given a drink with artificial sweetener. It didn’t create the glucose spike.

In subsequent tests, the sugar-drinking group exhibited much greater willpower and better judgement in decision-making than the group who had the artificial sweetener. In fact, that group showed no improvement in willpower over the control group at all.

The Times reported, “The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.”

The sugar / glucose literally “refueled” their decision fatigue induced depletion.

This experiment – while powerful and providing much direct insight about resolving decision fatigue – proved indirect information that was important as well.

It showed that willpower and consequently, smart decision-making, could be restored. It could also be conserved. Thus, perhaps – as it often is – the best defense is a good offense.

Here are 4 other ways to fight decision fatigue:

Get rest. Like glucose, the brain needs rest. Sleep is very literally a rest for the brain and mind, as well as the body.

Reduce decision fatigue by reducing decisions. Getting organized when willpower is high long-term and short-term (daily) is crucial to preventing (or fixing) decision fatigue. Creating an organized schedule so that decisions about what to do first, next, etc. are “pre-made” in times of high reserves (such as the weekend), conserves willpower and decision-making abilities for later when they are needed unexpectedly. That’s a major reason planning – short and long term – can help you be much more productive and organized in general.

Establish good habits. Just like getting organized reduces decision-making (and thus, decision fatigue), so does creating and following habits.

Just relax and “be” – enjoying what is… Perhaps the most important (and fun!) way to fight decision fatigue is to reserve time to just “be.” This is likely one of the (many) reasons meditation is so beneficial. During meditation, no decisions must be made, no choices analyzed, and judgements delivered.

Of course, there are many other opportunities to just relax and “be” in our lives as well. We just need recognize them and appreciate them when they occur. Even if we must schedule them in until they become a habit. Perhaps it will be a little easier now, knowing this time is truly important to our overall well-being. Just another justification for greater and more balance in our lives.



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